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Pitchfork Music Festival Day One

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"Sun is falling down/Sky is falling down/Seasons falling down/Air is falling down," Boston art-punk legends Mission of Burma sang in "Weatherbox" Friday night, midway through the opening set of the fourth Pitchfork Music Festival, as their guitars, bass, drums and tape loops evoked the fury of bombs falling in the midst of an earthquake during a vicious thunderstorm.

Thankfully, the real downpour stopped not long before the band officially opened the three-day festival in the West Side's Union Park. But it was an ominous message nonetheless, with the weather threatening to dampen souls if not spirits all weekend long at what has become the premier celebration of the musical underground in Chicago and the entire U.S.

It's easy to take shots at Pitchfork's opening-night "Don't Look Back" concept of bands performing one of their classic albums in its entirety and to dismiss it as a gimmick or cheap nostalgia. But as with everything else, it all depends on the music in question.

A long since gone-Hollywood Liz Phair performing "Exile in Guyville" or the reunited sorta-Smashing Pumpkins rendering "Gish" arguably are as sad as any state fair act. But a band like Mission of Burma is a different story: Its music was always far ahead of its time; it ended the first round of its career prematurely, in part because of guitarist Roger Miller's tinnitus, and the new albums it has recorded since 2004 have been every bit as good as "Vs." (1983), the subject of Friday's retrospective.

The musicians started by playing a few tunes that weren't on that album--it would have been perfect if they'd done "Signals, Calls, and Marches," the 1981 EP that preceded "Vs.," but you can't have everything--and then they tore through their album from the haunting "Secrets" to the always-ferocious "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate."

In terms of the timeless anthemic melodies, the pummeling rhythms, the searing noise guitar and the still avant-garde tape-loop manipulations (courtesy of Chicagoan Bob Weston), the show was immediate, of the moment and absolutely vital--the total opposite of an oldies act.

The night's headliner, the groundbreaking New York hip-hop crew Public Enemy, didn't fare quite as well playing the indelible "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" on the 20th anniversary of its release. On the plus side, Chuck D's megaphone voice was as powerful as it's ever been, and his words are indeed still louder than bombs. The dense white-noise assaults of producer/DJs the Bomb Squad, Keith and Hank Shocklee, also were as potent as Mission of Burma's more traditional rock assault on tracks such as "Bring the Noise" and "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos."

But where Flavor Flav was once a welcome comic sidekick, he is now merely a joke. Many of his raps seemed to be on tape, and it was nothing short of pathetic to hear him trumpeting himself as "the No. 1 star on reality TV" only moments after the group performed the relevant as ever "Don't Believe the Hype."

Then, too, there was the odd spectacle of this once controversial and downright dangerous group playing one of the all-time epics of urban discontent to an obviously privileged audience of college-rock fans. Fight the powers that be, indeed.

Sandwiched between those two acts, the overrated Massachusetts-based indie-rock cult favorite Sebadoh stumbled in its shambling, chaotic way through the inept noise explosions, none-too-tuneful folk-rock tunes and annoyingly plaintive ballads of "Bubble and Scrape" (1993). By no means is it the proto-emo heroes' best album--that would be "Bakesale" (1994)--but band co-founder Eric Gaffney had left by the time his partner Lou Barlow made that one, and since it's his version of the group that has reunited, Barlow probably didn't want to ruffle any feathers.

In the end, the prevailing messages of Day One was that Mission of Burma is a tough if not impossible act to follow--and it's probably a good idea to bring an umbrella for the rest of the festival.

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Jim, I totally agree on Mission of Burma, but I think you were perhaps overly harsh on PE. I do not believe Flav was lip-synching, in fact he made the point that they do not lip-synch on at least three occasions. It would be awfully bold to make such a statement and not actually be saying it.

Furthermore, while the album format certainly hindered their set (along with some pretty severe sound issues at the outset and again for a couple songs toward the end of the album), the six tune coda was amazing. From the moment they launched into Welcome to the Terrordome, it felt like an entirely new show. Flav may have turned himself a sideshow freak, but this is clearly the job he was born to do, and despite his tangential antics (like every between-song address to the audience and his pedestrian drum solo), within the songs, he brought the effusive stage presence and energy needed to balance Chuck D's heavier message.

Jim's review has absolutely nothing to do with actually being at the festival on Friday night, it's as if it was written in advance. Where's the part about the crowd for Mission of Burma being about as dense as a weekend farmer's market? Where's the part about Sebadoh not even trying to sound like a professional band, much less a hastily put together junior high battle of the bands contestant? And where is the part about thousands and thousands of people packing the park at 8:30 for Public Enemy to put on a very big, crowd-pleasing, victory lap of a show. I get it - Jim prefers Mission of Burma, loved their show, thinks they're overlooked by the general public. But you can't argue they're a tough act to follow if only a few hundred out of ten to twenty thousand actually saw their act! How is that even possible? And the worst part is that Public Enemy really rocked the park. Flavor Flav put more into their two hour show than all the members of Sebodoh put into entire tours. It was very refreshing to see him separate the reality show character from the seminal rapper. And PE really took giving It Takes Nation of Millions its due, sharing trivia like they had never even played Can We Get Witness, one of the funkiest songs on the whole album, in concert before. You know what's a tough act to follow? Batting practice. But fans go for the baseball game and Friday night Public Enemy was THE game. And two hours later, they were victorious.

Jim, what if Smashing Pumpkins did Siamese Dream instead of Gish? Wouldn't that suddenly be more compelling?

I wrote a review of Friday as well. Check it out here in case you're interested:

http://fightingtheyouth.blogspot.com/2008/07/pitchfork-friday.html

Thanks!

Jim, last I checked the Pumpkins haven't done the Gish tour yet.......you've made your feelings on the band well known but you just criticized a show that hasn't even happened yet.

I'm not a fan of the band, but in your effort to give a critical jab to them you made yourself look pretty unprofessional.

Jim DeRo responds: My skepticism about the Pumpkins playing "Gish" comes from the fact that the current version of the band is NOT the one that recorded that album, and thus it seems like little more than a marketing ploy. I hope that I am proved wrong.

Jim, Vig has gone on record saying that the two albums he produced (Gish and Siamese Dream) were both, respectively, 90% Corgan and Chamberlin.

Last I checked, Iha and D'arcy weren't being held hostage in Corgan's cellar.....brought out and put away again on his whim. They were asked to rejoin in 2005 but they declined. Believe it or not, they are people with self will. It's amazing! They can even feed themselves! It would have been even more of a ploy if Corgan threw a lot of money at those two to put on a front.

Ok, fine, that's a legit criticism.....but you really didn't say it in the article. You lumped it together with a tour that already happened (i.e. Liz Phair)

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on July 18, 2008 10:42 PM.

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